New York City Marathon director Peter Ciaccia has informally designated this year’s race “the Mebathon.” There will be 50,000 other runners — from 125 countries and all 50 states — taking on Sunday’s 26.2-mile trek through the five boroughs. There will be 21 Olympics, 18 Paralympians, 12 past New York City champions, and all four of last year’s winners — runners and wheelchair athletes — in the field.
But Meb Keflezighi, 42 years old and running his final competitive marathon, is not to be missed.
He will be easy to spot, wearing the running bib “Meb,” rather than a number. (First-name bibs, a recent practice for the headline runners, will then be retired from future New York Marathons.)
The 2004 Olympic silver medalist, the only American — male or female — to win New York (in 2009) in 34 years, the Boston champion in that race’s emotional return from the 2013 bombing, Keflezighi this week was named winner of the New York Road Runners Club’s Abebe Bikila Award.
“For legends only,” Ciaccia said.
“Wow,” Keflezighi said. “Growing up without a TV or running water, probably the first athlete I ever heard of was Abebe Bikila.”
There is some irony in that. Keflezighi was born in the East African nation of Eritrea, and immigrated with his family — first to Italy, then to San Diego — to escape Eritrea’s bloody 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia. Bikila was Ethiopian, the first athlete to win the Olympic marathon twice — the first time running barefoot in 1960.
Keflezighi — it is pronounced Kuh-FLEZ-ghee, but everyone calls him Meb — originally was lured into his sport after winning a T-shirt in a San Diego seventh-grade gym-class mile run. “Sports was, when I didn’t speak a word of English, what got me the thumbs up. It gave me that self-esteem, that you kind of belong to something,” he said.
He had been a 10,000-meter runner out of UCLA and had to be talked into trying his first marathon in 2002 by David Monti, the Road Runners official who assembles New York’s professional fields. After finishing ninth in that debut, Keflezighi “never wanted to do it again,” he said. “Because it hurt. The marathon hurts.”
Two years later, he was on the Olympic podium in Athens. Since Frank Shorter’s silver in 1976, not until Galen Rupp won bronze last year, Keflezighi was the only American male to medal at the Games.
On Sunday, look for Meb to give a thumbs up along the way.